Opinion

Transportation plan beats Ref. 51

When Referendum 51 — and its $7.8 billion in new transportation revenue — was rejected at the polls last November, elected officials were forced to deal with one single, sobering fact: Voters don't trust government to spend their transportation dollars wisely.

Our challenge as elected officials was figuring out how to regain the public's trust. We needed to make our transportation system more accountable to taxpayers, but we also realized there could be no serious improvements made without an infusion of new revenue.

Doing nothing was unacceptable. There's been no major investment in transportation for 13 years — the last time the state gas tax was increased.

The governor's Competitiveness Council told the Legislature last year that the No. 1 issue preventing our state from becoming more business-friendly was the transportation crisis.

This session, legislators rose to the challenge and crafted a transportation plan that's grown up a lot in the past six months since Ref. 51's defeat. It invests $4.2 billion over 10 years for highway, ferry, rail and transit improvements by increasing the gas tax by 5 cents and commercial trucking weight fees by 15 percent, and adding a 0.3 percent sales tax to vehicles.

But before any money is collected, there will be rock-solid safeguards in place to make sure it goes where it should: into specific building projects that have a specific description, location, time line and cost. These accountability measures will assure that these projects will begin to improve transportation in our state — and begin immediately.

"Performance audits" — reviews of the daily operation and efficiency of an organization — became a popular catch phrase this legislative session. The concept is nothing new: The Department of Transportation, Washington State Patrol and Department of Licensing have been audited seven times since 1998, and the recommendations from each audit were adopted. But most people don't realize that these audits ever happened.

One of the transportation accountability bills approved by the Legislature puts a new spin on the old concept of performance audits. Senate Bill 5748 creates the Performance Audit Board, a 10-member group of citizens and legislators that will direct a thorough two-step performance review and audit process. Regular citizens — with expertise in transportation planning, construction, engineering and project management - will work with legislators to review our state's transportation agencies and order an audit if they see something they don't like. The board will be the public's watchdog in the sometimes labyrinthine maze of transportation governance and bring unprecedented accountability to our transportation system.

The taxpayers will also have the Legislative Transportation Committee on their side. New legislation (SB 5248) puts the committee — composed of legislators from the House and Senate and both political parties — to oversee the contracting out of construction projects to the private sector.

Most road construction in Washington is already contracted out — so chances are, nearly every orange-vested construction worker you'll see out on the highways this summer works for a private company.

SB 5248 will also assure that the wages paid to those construction workers are fair. Because it costs more to live in Seattle than in more rural areas of Washington, wages should be adjusted regionally. Pend Oreille County shouldn't have to pay a highway flagger the same wage as King County does.

The Department of Labor and Industries will examine the prevailing wage system through a comparative process called stratified random sampling.

Ask any developer or transportation project planner about their biggest source of headaches and delays, and they'll likely say permitting. SB 5279, recently signed into law by the governor, continues an effort begun in 2001 to streamline the environmental permitting process for construction projects.The measure extends the charter of a committee tasked with developing one-stop permitting for three more years. No more visiting

multiple agencies for a permitting decision.

But don't take my word for it. Anyone wanting to keep tabs on the Department of Transportation can visit them on the Web at http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/.

Just a few clicks and you can receive updates on projects, access key facts and see for yourself how the department is using your money.

After Ref. 51's defeat, the critics claimed that legislators wouldn't act on transportation again for years. But Democrats and Republicans picked up the pieces and worked together to craft a bipartisan package that's better than Ref. 51. It's smaller, more focused and more responsible, and it will begin to improve the very quality of life for everyone in Washington.

It's a good feeling to prove the critics wrong — and to know that you've grown up a little in the process.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Highways & Transportation Committee. She represents Island County and portions of Skagit and Snohomish counties.

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